Juan Flores (1943-2014): A Remembrance of a Great Scholar

Deep in the labyrinth of the CUNY Graduate Center in 2004, a seminar on Afro-Latin@s in the United States was being offered via the city-wide consortium. I was nearly done with my doctoral course work in Public & Urban Policy at the New School and needed a couple of electives before the dreaded qualifying examination. One of the program’s advisors at the time, concerned that the seminar would be missing “policy relevance” I needed for my dissertation, had planted seeds of doubt. But it was the interdisciplinary instructor of the course (whose Ph.D was in German Literature), who upon listening to my potential dissertation topic during first day introductions, interrupted me mid-sentence with his signature smile and said: “You really need this course.”

On December 2, 2014, Juan Flores, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, passed away in Durham, North Carolina, a few weeks after he had contributed to an academic conference at Duke University. An award-winning and prolific scholar on Puerto Rican, Latin@ and Afro-Latin@ culture and identity, it is not an understatement to write that Juan’s contributions not only left an indelible mark across multiple disciplines, but also amongst his former students. When Juan interrupted my own train of thought in that moment in 2004, it was clear that he had deliberately attempted to interrupt my research. At the time, I had specifically been exploring the roots of the ethnic enclave in Miami and proposed to rehash a theory that popped up in the sociology and economics literature in the 1980s, one that suggested that such notoriously segregated bastions of exploitation could actually be beneficial for newcomers. If the “ethnic enclave” was argued to be so good for the 1960s Cuban exiles and subsequent generations, would the same hold true for black Cubans? While few black Cubans ended up in Miami overall, even after the more diverse Mariel boatlift (1980), for those that did, how did they fare as compared to their “white” counterparts and other Latin@s in the region? Did the “owners” and progenitors of the newly ballyhooed “ethnic economy,” once viewed by the Chicago school as a necessary “decompression chamber” before eventual socioeconomic integration for children of immigrants, extend the same privileges to their black co-ethnics? If not, how should the state respond?

When Juan Flores became my professor, he challenged the methodological contours of my scholarly inquiry, despite feeling fields away in the land of urban policy analysis. His Socratic intervention was desperately needed at a time when “numbers” dominated my method of inquiry, economic theories were my prevailing explanatory referent, and my application of interdisciplinary and transnational perspectives was minimal. But to get there, Juan taught me through expertise and exposure, I needed theoretical understandings of race and racialization in the Americas, particularly Cuba. I (read: we) needed to dig deeper into Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz’s view of Cubanidad, which Juan had us critique in the seminar, as an expression of “color-blind” nationalism that seemed to involve everyone but Afro-Cubans. We needed to understand how the “Latin@ propensity to uphold mestizaje (racial and cultural mixture),” as he and fellow collaborator and life partner Miriam Jiménez Román wrote in the Afro-Latin@ Reader, was indeed an “exceptionalist and wishful panacea,” deeply embedded in the contours of anti-blackness (Román and Flores, 2010: 3).

We needed to understand how the stigma of claiming a black identity contributed to the undercounting (hence statistical understanding and political mal-representation) of our Afro-Latin@ herman@s here and abroad, evidence of his deep understanding of the crucial role of the state on peoples’ everyday livelihoods. In essence, we needed broad, interdisciplinary understandings of not just the oppressive structures of the United States (which dominates the urban policy literature on U.S. Latin@s), but also the present racial inequalities deeply rooted in the colonial contours of Latin America, with specific attention to the racial baggage that accompanies migration and transnational processes.

Juan’s death is a tremendous intellectual loss. As a peer eloquently echoed in conversation over Juan’s contributions, he knew how to enlarge and expand the theoretical and content knowledge of his students and colleagues, interventions and “interruptions” so crucial and necessary for student activism and scholarship that informed Puerto Rican/Latin@ Studies during its formative years, and now the burgeoning Afro-Latin@ Studies field. To borrow from one of the many “tweets” reflecting on Juan’s impact on our lives: Rest in Power, hermano.

Alan A. Aja is Assistant Professor & Deputy Chair in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latin@ Studies at Brooklyn College (CUNY). His sole and collaborative research on inter-group disparities has been published in Latino/a Research Review, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics & Culture, Social Research, Dissent, Ethnic Studies Review (forthcoming), the Huffington Post and the Washington Post. Aja recently completed a manuscript on the Afro-Cuban experience in South Florida.

Mickey the Dog and Kevin the Child

In Phoenix on February, 2014 a pit bull named Mickey attacked a 5-year-old named Kevin Vicente. According to the Arizona Republic, Kevin arrived at Maricopa Medical Center “with skin and tissue ripped off his face, a broken eye socket, detached tear ducts and a fractured jaw.” Kevin “eats and breathes through tubes while awaiting a series of reconstructive surgeries. “ He is expected to have permanent and painful scarring.

It seems that Mickey has a history of violence. A few months before his attack on Kevin, Mickey killed a neighbor’s dog. According to a County Report, Kevin was playing with other children in the presence of a baby sitter. Kevin ran past Mickey, within the range of Mickey’s chain, who “caught the boy from behind, took him to the ground and attacked his face . . . Adults were present and pulled the dog off.” Accounts of the incident are mixed. A neighbor who witnessed the event said that what provoked the attack was that Kevin took one of the dog’s bones.

Dogs may bite someone who takes their bones, but what Mickey did went far beyond that. John Schill, Mickey ‘s attorney , did not seem to agree. He blames the child: “Everybody supports Mickey. . . . Everybody is taught, from the moment they walk, you do not take a bone from a dog.”

Let me get this straight, Mr. Schill: a 5 year old in the middle of play has the nerve to take a vicious dog’s bone and the dog almost kills him. Man, “that’ll teach the little brat.”

Support for Mickey has been so extraordinary that it boggles the mind. An ABC news report outlines steps taken by Mickey’s friends to save his life.

Action was brought against Mickey, asking for him to be euthanized. A Phoenix attorney stepped in on behalf of Mickey and after several months of legal battles and an outcry from tens of thousands of people on social media asking Mickey’s life be spared, a judge ruled that Mickey is indeed vicious but his life could be saved if an appropriate sanctuary could be found.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio got in the act. The details of his intervention may be found at Mickey’s cam website:

He [Arpaio] went to court on behalf of the dog and offered the judge a way to save Mickey ….the Sheriff’s Office would give Mickey a ‘life sentence’ inside Arpaio’s MASH jail (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Animal Safe House). The pit bull would be offered no parole, and no probation in exchange for taking the death sentence off the table.

Incidentally, “Cam” refers to the fact that Mickey‘s website includes live footage of the pit bull in his living area.

Although the boy’s needs are serious, the concern for him doesn’t come close to that of Mickey’s:

[A] fundraising website for Kevin and his mother [has] raised $1,179 as of Tuesday [March 11]. . .Flora Medrano [a neighbor]said Kevin’s mother, a single parent, had to quit her job to take care of her son full time. With no other family in the U.S., Medrano said, the mother needs family and emotional support — yet neither is pouring in.

The 5-year-old Latino is in pain and suffers from nightmares. “He asks me [his mother] when his scars will go away. I say I don’t know.”

Has this (white) country lost its mind? A vicious dog that mauls a 5-year-old child has a big following, a lawyer, and its own website? A sheriff gets involved in the fate of the dog, but does nothing to help a gravely injured and poor child. The little boy is blamed for being nearly killed by a vicious dog and damaged for life. But it is the dog that captures the white public’s imagination. This seems the epitome of human degeneracy.

The obvious issue of race was addressed in only one of the articles I found. Its author puts it succinctly:

I may be wrong, but I seriously doubt that the pit bull would be alive if Kevin was a little white child, whose mother spoke English fluently.

Black Lives Matter Protests in NYC and DC

Over the weekend in New York City and Washington, DC thousands of people marched in protest against racist police violence in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and so many others. The march in NYC, which I attended, was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial crowd of people from many different backgrounds. While there were folks there of all ages, the march was youth-led and organized, mostly through social media and with little to no money, as Linda Sarour observed on Twitter.

I took a bunch of photos that day, but lost them in an ill-timed software update on my phone. It’s just as well because none of my photos were as good as some of the others, like this one of a haunting series of posters of Eric Garner’s eyes.

Eric Garner's Eyes on protest signs

 (Image source: Joel Franco)

While estimates of the crowd in NYC varied widely (from 12,000 to 50,000), this amazing time-lapsed video taken at the intersection of 6th Avenue and 29th Street of the march in NYC gives you some idea of the scale of the protests:

The rallying cry for the march and the movement, is #BlackLivesMatter, which was created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, as a call to action following the murder of Trayvon Martin. Garza has authored a compelling piece at The Feminist Wire about the attempts at theft and co-opting a movement started by queer, women of color. Garza explains the deeply intersectional vision behind #BlackLivesMatter:

“Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”

This is a movement, not a moment, and on Saturday I was humbled to be able to walk as part of it. Today, I’m grateful that I’ve lived long enough to see the start of this movement.

Dismantling White Supremacy at Vassar

A message appeared in my inbox last Thursday from Vassar College President Catharine Hill, addressed to parents and alumnae/i of Vassar like myself. It serves as Hill’s official response to the national attention the college has received in recent days and what she names “a very challenging time for our community.”

While she does not name them, she references “several online articles” regarding race, class, and sexual assault, which “reflect the frustration and pain of individuals in our community.” These include pieces like Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK” and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Dean’s Job in the Age of Mike Brown,” which have garnered national attention from venues like Inside Higher Ed in “Black and Not Feeling Welcome.”

The letter is peppered with two words – we and our. It is filled with phrases like “our campus” and “our community.” But who is this we that Hill addresses? Who is this our that lays claim to the campus, that is entitled to be in and the right to be of Vassar?

The forceful rhetorical assertion of our community has multifarious consequences. It counts individuals in the “our community” whose everyday experiences in that institution are not characterized by such a warm and fuzzy inclusion. As Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America powerfully asserts, this purported inclusion is tenuous at best. He and others are consistently reminded of the transgression their inclusion in this historical and still white institution entails. Such assertions of our community incorporate people who do not experience inclusion in their daily lives – and do so without their consent and without their voices.

Writing that this is a troubling and “challenging time for our community” also suggests that it is the institution itself that is suffering. As Sara Ahmed notes in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, such rhetorical work is not uncommon when academic institutions of higher education come under such fire. It dilutes the critiques by applying them to the whole community, rather than recognizing the unequal distribution of suffering which is leveled at particular groups by that very community.

But what I found most unnerving about the College’s response were the following phrases:

“…these issues are extremely troubling for me and for all of us at Vassar who are working to build a community that supports every student, faculty member, and staff member.”

 

“…our priorities are to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone on campus.”

 

“We must do all we can to ensure that all our community members feel safe and supported – and we will.”

 

The dream is a community that supports everyone. Where everyone feels safe and supported. Where everyone’s well-being is ensured. A true academic utopia.

That goal is unachievable. It is impossible to make all those who live, study and work at Vassar feel safe and supported. How can you make both people of color and those who maintain a possessive investment in whiteness comfortable?

You can’t.

Kiese Laymon, a black male English professor at Vassar, prolific and published author, writes that a white senior professor said he could speak in Ebonics to him if he liked. Eve Dunbar writes of a senior black female colleague who told her others in her department would not support her receiving tenure because, as a black woman, she had nothing to offer white people.

The rhetoric of our community and of universal support ignores the obvious impossibility of creating a supportive atmosphere for both the black professor and the colleague who denies that said qualified black professor deserves tenure.

During my time as an undergraduate at Vassar, a black female professor found a piece of wire fashioned into a noose attached to her office door. If I remember correctly, it was constructed of paperclips. What that professor experienced was much more than a single unnerving threat of racial violence. I cannot even imagine what that was like for her. It would be a disservice to her experience, and to the discrimination other people of color have faced at Vassar, to think that I could. But I do know that after that threat, there were no official campus-wide messages like the ones I am now receiving in my inbox. If that professor hadn’t had the courage to share it with us, a group of students, I never would have known. The internet suggests she no longer works there.

How can you make students, staff and faculty of color feel safe while you also offer support to those who institutionally maintain white supremacy and enact it interpersonally?

You can’t.

How can you support the well-being of those who find imitations of nooses at their office doors and those who make them?

You can’t.

President Hill, it is impossible to make everyone supported and everyone comfortable while dismantling white supremacy and racial discrimination at our institution. And I say our institution here purposefully.

Without downplaying the important issue of sexual assault on college campuses throughout the US, I, as a white woman, am not sure I ever felt truly unsafe during my time at Vassar. Indeed, I am in many ways what Nirmal Puwar calls the somatic norm of that institution. Vassar, a liberal arts college founded for women in 1861, is an institution made for people like me. I am a white Vassar legacy.

I love Vassar. It is the only college to which I applied for my undergraduate degree, because it is the only place I wanted to go. But it is easy for someone like me to love Vassar. I never had to struggle to love an institution that also shunned me, that pulled me close while pricking and prodding me. I was never figuratively burned and I never suffered the indignities of which Dunbar writes.

It was in this safe and supportive, and exclusive, atmosphere, in what we all called the “Vassar bubble,” that white supremacy and racism could continue. It was in feeling so secure in our self-congratulatory progressive politics that we could continue to make racist jokes—because we knew we knew better. Or at least that’s what we told ourselves. That is the We I knew. That is the our community in which I earned my undergraduate degree.

President Hill, if we truly seek the same change, rather than coddling ourselves in the warm and fuzzy blanketing rhetoric of community and support, we need to make a lot of people uncomfortable. And I mean a lot of white people. I mean a lot of people like me. An equitable and compassionate community will not come from “working across differences” or “ongoing campus discussion, where we can listen and speak with one another frankly”. In such an institution, that continues to be predominantly and overwhelmingly white on all fronts, such a conversation cannot but drown out dissenting voices. That is not “the only way to assure that we can make progress.”

These issues go beyond Vassar. Comments to Laymon’s and Dunbar’s pieces from institutions around the country make that abundantly clear. And I wish I could say I had not seen or heard of analogous instances of racial threats, white ignorance and institutional silence since the noose or my years at Vassar. I cannot say that.

We need to make a lot more people nestled in white privilege uncomfortable and take institutional steps to dismantle that privilege, not give them equal opportunities to speak. I think we’ve spoken enough. And talking is not enough.

The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. See the first part here.

The Annals issue mentioned in previous post caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show “not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality.” At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later:

One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.

This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers. Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context:

If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value.

It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?

While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes,

Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.

But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.

Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed

Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty.

The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration.

Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.

The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities.

Note: Portions of this post appeared in a 2011 The Boston Review article.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

PART I: VERY OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Obama and Immigration Reform

On November 19, after a long delay, President Obama issued an Executive Action on Immigration Reform that contained three stipulations. First, more resources will be given to law enforcement personnel charged with stopping unauthorized border crossings. Second, the President will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay. Third, the President announced steps “to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”

The first provision will please opponents of unauthorized immigration and the second will be supported by business interests. They are not likely to give rise to controversy. The third provision, however, has already caused a furor among conservative Republicans.

For example, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz asserted that Obama’s

actions are . . . unconstitutional and in defiance of the American people who said they did not want amnesty in the 2014 elections.

House Speaker Boehner, brimming with vitriol, stated that “President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”

Once again, Republican leaders reached in their demagoguery tool kit and grabbed their standard response to all things Obama: Obama is dishonest, the problem is his fault, and the American people are on their side. Of course, they won’t do anything to fix it.

Many individuals sympathetic to the undocumenteds’ difficulties are in a festive mood. But there is a factor to consider before we can truly celebrate: we need to see President Obama follow through. Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, puts it as follows:

We are . . . concerned that the President will not fully exercise his power of executive action to impact on all those who should be eligible for legalization, and expect that they will be shortchanged in terms of what should be basic human rights benefits such as health insurance. President Obama’s record also demonstrates that his public pronouncements do not necessarily result in effective federal action, with agencies such as Homeland Security consistently undermining the President’s rhetoric.

I share Mr. Falcón’s misgivings. I’ll wait and see how things turn out before I celebrate.

Ferguson, Missouri: “Our” Contribution to the Survival of the White Racist Frame

Ferguson, Missouri. What can I abundantly say? As the name guilelessly emerges from the mouth, a macabre power elicits resounding physical and emotional responses within individuals. These divisive responses have caused many keen, and the not so intellectually in tuned to disgorge upon our airways and our favorite politically one-sided cable network news television shows to speak simply in terms of faults, blames, and inculpabilities. In response to the somber situation at hand, I cannot think of what I can say that has not already been thrust upon the public regarding the police shooting death of 19 year-old Michael Brown.

But just when I thought it has all been incessantly said, someone has come along and presented a new controversial perspective. The “super producer,” singer, and rap artist, Pharrell Williams, has presented us with an interesting observation. If you do not know who he is, just think of him as the Black guy you have seen on television recently who has a proclivity for inane hats. Regardless, in regard to the Michael Brown shooting, in a recent interview with Ebony Magazine, he stated,

I don’t talk about race since it takes a very open mind to hear my view, because my view is the sky view. But I’m very troubled by what happened in Ferguson, Mo.

With his so-called “sky view” (it takes a millionaire to understand the term), he began to further discussion of the televised store surveillance video that depicts Michael Brown stealing and intimidating the store operator. Mr. Williams went on to say,

It looked very bully-ish; that in itself I had a problem with…. Not with the kid, but with whatever happened in his life for him to arrive at a place where that behavior is OK. Why aren’t we talking about that?

Entertaining. For a man who calls himself apart of the “New Black,” he may actually have a substantially important issue that calls for further discussion. This little nugget cannot be compared to his other recent failure of intellectual accession when he told Oprah Winfrey,

The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues…The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.”

Can I digress for a moment; I really would like to ask him if Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and others were simply blaming other races for their issues?

Nevertheless, his initial observation of what drove Michael Brown’s “bully-ish” behavior got the old noggin clicking. Then within a thought provoking moment, I began to recall an old rap song I use to play over and over again as a teenager. In my youth, it caused me to really question Black America. Within “Us,” written by Ice Cube, stated:

Could you tell me who released our animal instinct?
Got the white man sittin’ there tickled pink… That’s what ya doin’ with the money that ya raisin’ Exploitin’ us like the Caucasians did

I would like to ask, who among my people continues to exploit “us” and feed the animal of systemic oppression and its consequential actions? Unlike the past, current public rationalization is subtler than the past, but still equally damaging to Blacks. With careful critique, one can hear the current depressing messages of Black males in popular songs. Case in point, I bring you Mr. Pharrell Williams. He has made a living from producing others as well as himself on wax.. Such songs as “When the Last Time,” “Feds Watching” “Power,” “Light your Ass on Fire,” and “Mr. Me Too” just to name a few. All of which illustrate an all too familiar contemporary formula of opulence living, drug usage, violence, and misogynistic overtones. This is not to mention the videos that are plagued with issues of colorism and white aesthetic favoritism.

In American Paradox: Young Black Men, Renford Reese discussed research that involved surveying 756 Black males (13-19 years-of-age) in places such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. He determined that the “tough guy” persona distinguished in the music of Mr. Williams and other acts that glamorize violence, sexist behavior, and the glamorous life have negatively effected generations of Black men’s identity. Was Michael Brown’s identity affected by Mr. Pharrell and others? Can his bully-ish behavior be traced back to he and his musical keen?

We are currently living within an era resembling Blaxploitation filming trends. Within the 1970s, Whites movie production companies comprehended the financial benefit associated with the genre and mass-produced movies that propelled negative stereotypes and images. For the most part, the culturally empty music today that gains most of the public attention resembles this past era. The production of this music is filled with the same gratuitous violence, drug usage, luxurious champagne, and misogyny that are simply on display for the sake of exhibitionism. On the other hand, people such as the co-founder of Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons, defends these artists and their work by arguing that

The hip-hop community is a mirror, a reflection of the dirt we overlook—the violence, the misogyny, the sexism. They need to be discussed.

While he and his proponents refuse to look up from the massive “bling” on their wrists and red velvet underneath their feet, a fact looms over their inflated heads that point to their involvement in driving and maintaining the historical white racist oppressive frame.

You are right Pharrell. But you just forgot to include yourself and your musical keen who have contributed the current state of affairs. But I am understand. Especially when everything is so “Happy.”

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The Stacked Deck

So this happened:

After driving around that corner and through this yellow light, up the one-way street and around again through the morning work traffic in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Brooklyn, I found a parking spot in front of a row of brownstones. I grabbed my gym bag from the back seat, double-checked the locks on the doors, and kicked down the cracked sidewalk toward the YMCA. I had never been here before. This particular neighborhood had fences. Not the decorative ones skirting the trees and patches of grass pervasive to NYC in general to keep unaware pedestrians and wandering animals at bay. Here the fences were prohibitive rather than suggestive. The fences here climbed high over the first story windows and barred the second.

Here they laced even the doorways. As I approached the intersection, I noticed a middle-aged woman with a drag-behind, travel carryon walking my direction from across the street. She hoisted her bag against her side with one arm, not utilizing the wheels. Even this early in the morning, her shoulder length hair fell in smooth brown curls to frame her warm complexion, her make-up flawless. There was little movement on this street. A few people lingered by the YMCA entrance. One man sat on his steps watching the morning pass. I noticed them as I did the approaching woman and, adhering to New York social code, did not avert my eyes from my destination. No salutary smile or nod as my Southern manners dictated. I was far from home and the only person of my race in sight; my only objective here was to exercise and get cleaned up for the day ahead listening to the presentations at The New School. As the woman and I crossed paths she paused to yell, “Why don’t you jump off the bridge, you white bitch.” I kept my eyes forward and laughed a little to myself not having expected any acknowledgment—let alone one of such caliber. Seconds later she continued. “If you are white, stay on the other side of the river.” I smiled to myself and went inside, not giving the matter much more thought.

OK, that last sentence was a lie. This interaction turned and turned inside my mind—as I ran, as I showered, as I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, even as I listened to bell hooks’ discussion on transgression and the presentation of black bodies in media.

Here’s the rub: this is not racism. The woman who yelled at me was not being racist.

Granted, she was not being polite, but the equivocation of affronted political correctness with racism has too long overshadowed the underlying issue. This was outside of politesse but not racist even though the comment referred to my race. And here is why: I laughed. Perhaps I laughed at the tale as a possible narrative for, as a writer, I constantly look for novel anecdotes about what “happened on the way to the forum.” Or it could have been the oddity and surprise of the situation which amused me. Or it could have been the realization of completely misreading her that morning and possessing zero understanding of what experiences occupied her mind or the possible slights she was diffusing. But the point is still there: I laughed. Her invective was not a threat. My safety, ability to comport myself, or my socio-economic progression was in no way hampered by her anger. Hell, my day wasn’t even ruined.

Racism is not about the feelings of one person toward another. Let us not confuse it with prejudice where a personal predilection dictates action based upon stereotyped assumptions or fears about a perceived racial, sexual, or class orientation. It is much, much bigger than that.

Much, much bigger than you or me or the aforementioned woman. It is a systematic discrimination and withholding of privilege, safety, ability, and comfort because of color and/or nationality. It exists as an institution above us, behind our language, and within our social code.

Even as an outsider dissimilar with the majority of the inhabitants of an unfamiliar neighborhood, I felt perfectly at ease to conduct my business and to move freely without inhibition or concern for my safety or any fear of oppression. I was not going to be stopped by the police for looking suspicious or for not fitting in. My earning potential was not hampered by her displeasure. No possibility was barred me for looking as I do. Nor did I feel the threat of danger or assault on my person because of my racial positionality. The system, even when a physical minority, has been established to give me a chance. And that chance affords a place, an ability to determine my own definition, and even the ability to laugh at situations that could have been risky or frightful had the mechanisms of privilege been switched.

Racism is not only within an inappropriate joke, a look askance at someone as they pass by, a burning cross, or discrimination of housing and/or employment. Each one of those acts are complicit participation within a system which is established and reinforced by the hetero-normative, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.

Now don’t get me wrong here.

This is not to vilify or cast blame upon any particular person who participates or identifies with the dominant socio-class. No offense, but this system is bigger than that. We are past the days when we can point at any particular white, straight, business man as the enforcer of the system.

But unless you are actively working to dissemble the mechanisms of privilege and empower diversity in all forms, you are simultaneously upholding the system which benefits one while restricting others.

An aspect of privilege most of us privileged don’t want to admit is that we don’t have to think about privilege. Peggy McIntosh called facing white privilege “elusive and fugitive,” over twenty-five years ago, and as a whole, we have not encroached upon any robust apprehension of it since. White (and male) privilege is rarely considered until threatened. When I walk into the room, no one wonders why I am where I am, if I am alone, if I am leaving alone, or going home with them. Their thought is not one of belonging or whether or not I have upset delicate social relationships in being where I am. And since I have not upset persona particular expectations, the perceivers are not confronted with their own self-definition. They continue on without ever wondering where they stand within the social spectrum. It is frighteningly easy to ignore. And unless confronted, acknowledged, and challenged, it will refuse to reconstruct within a paradigm of greater equality. Life is most profoundly felt at its perimeters. Society has given me a berth where the perimeters lie upon who I know, what kind of girls I date, and what car I drive. Those are the requisites and possible impediments to perceived success within the “myth of meritocracy” wherein most people benefited by privilege believe privilege itself is hinged upon personal drive and acumen.

Because that is the locus of struggle for most who have the same socio-economic identity as I do, that is also the limits of perceived persona. Still, worlds exist outside of that monolithic worldview which are as valid and beautiful as any sphere imaginable. Unfortunately, by most, these worlds are not seen.

This works to the depth that most of you reading this probably assumed my white male-ness as a given in the short episode above because it was not mentioned (and props to those of you who didn’t). It is that pervasive. Think about that. What does that then mean when the perception shifts? What are the other assumptions which are inferred? Do any of those assumptions restrict or endanger someone’s freedom and ability to express themselves? If it is easy for you to pass a police officer without worry of being frisked or arrested for looking how you do, remember that.

If you can walk home alone without worry of being assaulted, taken, violated or worse, remember that. If you are able to declare the love of your beloved without fear of being beaten, fired, or ostracized, remember that. Now think about all those who can’t—think of all those who are struggling under a system which demands of their identity explanation, justification, or apology. And what are you doing to champion difference?

~ This post was written by Steele Peterson Campbell, a graduate of Auburn University, with a Master’s Degree in Literature. He is a writer who is currently completing his first novel and currently resides in Nashville, TN. You can follow Steele on Twitter @TheSteeleC.

This is the New Civil Rights Movement and It Will be Digital

I’ve been going to racial justice marches in New York City for nearly 20 years (for Abner Louima, for Amadou Diallo, for Sean Bell, for Ramarley Graham) and I’ve never seen anything like the mass protests in response to Eric Garner. This gives me hope.

This is one view of what the movement looked like last night in New York City:

Protests like this one happened all over the U.S. With respect to Gil Scott Heron (who told us that The Revolution Will Not be Televised), this movement is and will be digital. More precisely, this new civil rights movement is spreading quickly because it is digitally augmented through Twitter, Vine, Instagram and other social media platforms. The movement is also, simultaneously, in the streets. It is both/and – both digital and material – at the same time. And this, too, gives me hope.

The both/and, digital/material feature of the new civil rights movement means several hopeful things.

It means that it’s both youth-led movement, and it is intergenerational. It means that it’s both youth-led and leaderless, in the traditional sense. It also means that it both circumvents and subverts legacy civil rights organizations that are now mostly corporate-funded or corporate-affiliated. It means that it is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement.

The both/and quality of the new civil rights movement means that while much of the organizing is happening online – through websites like Ferguson Action, and email newsletters like thisisthemovement published by DeRay McKesson (@deray) and through Twitter hashtags #EricGarner #BlackLivesMatter #ShutItDown – people have been showing up in the streets for 118 days now.

The demands of the new civil rights movement are, of course, both posted online and demand real, concrete action in the material world.

Today is a day for hope.